Thursday, March 11, 2010

Erin's Olives: My Cure

Olives plucked directly from the tree are edible, but, unbelievably bitter. "Bitter" is really an understatement, for having tasted them that way, I can tell you that that they are pretty much spit-out bitter. Planted extensively in Southern California for their ornamental beauty and also for commercial purposes, the olive is, unless genetically engineered, a messy tree, spilling a blood-indigo colored carpet beneath its arbor when that season comes. Many years ago, when I lived in Tucson they banned new plantings for just that reason arguing that the trees were an unwanted source of allergens. There are many varieties, and one of the local favorites is the Russian Olive which is a very beautiful gray tree reminiscent of a weeping willow. The fruit of an olive has a gestation that takes it from pip, to firm greenness and shades on to a deep dark fleshy, fluid filled blackness that signals complete ripeness. One can choose to cure the fruit at any point between greenness and ripeness.

The curing of olives is one of the great achievements of mankind. Olive oil, is, and for centuries passed, has been used as a condiment and cooking medium, and probably more importantly as a vital fuel for lamps. Most olive oil comes from the stone, or pip, ground down or pressed. Olive oil has a very strong flavor and can overpower many Northern European or traditional American dishes. I remember being 15 and thinking that I would surprise my parents by making Southern Fried Chicken for dinner. I had watched my mother make the dish repeatedly over the years and learned her method, but, not having developed a real palette, I thought olive oil would be perfect as a medium, and of course it completely overpowered the dish. I was crestfallen for all my efforts even though we all managed to eat it up.

Times change. This last Christmas I was walking up the pathway to Erin Chairez's house in Bakersfield, and I saw that the young Russian olive tree, originally planted as an ornamental, was dripping with plump fruit. I went in, got a large bowl and began picking the the juicy morsels from the tree. I filled the bowl and brought them back down to L.A. You can cure olives with food grade lye and also with salt. Since it was an experiment I thought I'd forgo the cost of the mail order lye, which is also a poison, and try to do it with salt. I scored each deep dark olive with a knife at the branch end and poured water and salt over them to make perhaps a 15% brine. I love long haul food experiments, having learned patience with wine making and meat curing, so, I boned up on various methods from the internet and came to my own process. I poured the whole lot into a gallon ziploc bag and put them in the fridge and after two weeks I pulled them out and changed the dark maroon water with fresh brine and tasted one. Hardly a difference. I repeated this again and again , changing the water less frequently mostly out of apathy, almost thinking that it was never going to happen.

Last week, some three months on, having forgotten about the bag tucked away in a corner of the fridge, I pulled them out and tasted one. It was barely salty but deliciously olive-y. Time to rinse them and dry them. I spread them on a baking sheet at a 225 degree heat and checked them every ten minutes over a half hour period until they had shrivelled ever so slightly and I pulled one out and tried it. The flavor had intensified from that ever so slight dehydration. I resisted the urge to add chopped rosemary or garlic reminding myself that I am something of a flavor purist. I coated them very thinly with olive oil to seal them and unify their color and then canned some and slapped a quick label on the jar(see pic). I must say they are delicious. My only regret is that I did not pick and cure five times the amount. Ah well there is always next year!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Letter From New Zealand #2

My friend Peter Huck, journalist and windswept adventurer, recently moved away from Los Angeles with his other half, the lovely Barbara Drake, to beautiful New Zealand. I asked Peter to write a monthly letter from down under as a kind of mirror to my own efforts and experiences here. This is the second letter.

It’s been a dry month in Aotearoa, the Land of the Long White Cloud. Large cracks have appeared in the deep clay cap on our Coromandel block. We’ve spent much of the past month building a bach lean-to – three walls covered with salvaged tin (corrugated iron) and punctuated with louvers, plus a sloping tin roof to catch rainwater, and a floor made from eucalyptus planks – beside our caravan. But, as yet, we haven’t a gutter and a down pipe to catch water.

This precious commodity is in very short supply. Other than rare misty moisty moments – such as a squall that swept across the house site from the Hauraki Gulf last week, momentarily easing the humidity and perking up our plants, but hardly settling the dust – there has been no rain.

This makes washing, drinking and, of course, cooking a challenge. One of our daily tasks is to haul in water, either from the Driving Creek CafĂ© or the creek itself. We also lack power, so each day must swap a trio of ice packs [frozen in a neighbour’s freezer] to cool our Esky or icebox. Given that we’re also working dawn to dusk hours we’ve opted to prepare dishes – home-made dahl, hummus and Provencal-style fish stew, a kiwi bouillabaisse, are standards - in Auckland, tweaking them if necessary in Coromandel. This week’s onion, garlic, tomato and courgette stew base was augmented by gurnard, bought from the fish ‘n’ chip shop a stone’s throw from the Coromandel harbour, and prepared by flashlight as the cicadas buzzed, dusk fell and a glittering canopy of stars joined the moon to cast a magical, theatrical light across the darkening forest.

By LA standards New Zealand droughts are benign. But prolonged dry spells wreck havoc on this nation’s farm economy, not to mention our parched Auckland veggie patch, neglected while we were away. Northland, the area beyond Auckland, is threatening water restrictions. Yet, Central Hawke’s Bay, traditionally prone to long droughts – and best suited to dry country stock farming and grapes – has had a wet summer. There is much talk of El Nino and whether it is influenced by global warming, even as climate change deniers – delighted by the hacked Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change emails and other scandals, and a vociferous lobby in New Zealand - have had a field day.

Despite its ballyhooed “clean and green” tourist image, enhanced by epic scenery [Ian McCulloch, of Echo & The Bunnymen, once described New Zealand as a “psychedelic Yorkshire,” perhaps due to the extraordinary clarity of the atmosphere; gazing at our 360-degree Coromandel vista is like tumbling into the rabbit hole or stepping into an 18th century landscape by Cook’s artist Sydney Parkinson] and low greenhouse gas emissions, compared to other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development nations, New Zealand isn’t nearly as pristine as it makes out. Efforts to turn Auckland into a “super city” by amalgamating local councils are seen by critics as a feint to privatise water, even as the right-wing National government ponders opening up protected land including, maybe, World Heritage status national parks, to mining, an issue that is red hot in the Coromandel Peninsula, site of the nation’s first gold strike at Driving Creek in 1852.

Meanwhile, dairying, a major export, squanders water [pumping from aquifers in Hawke’s Bay for instance to the consternation of non-dairy farmers] and is responsible for copious methane emissions, a greenhouse gas linked to climate change and estimated in 2007 by New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research at 35.2% of the country’s output. And a new documentary, based on English journalist Charles Clover’s book The End of the Line, argues that New Zealand has torpedoed its status as a sustainable fishery, due to its destructive, bottom-trawled orange roughy – popular in the US – catch. Waitrose, the UK food chain, has banned orange roughy and hoki, another kiwi fish; a prime example of consumer-driven conservation that New Zealand would be wise to acknowledge. “The number one hole in your system,” Clover told the New Zealand Herald, “[is that] you don’t actually have a proper up-to-date assessment of the 600-odd species you have in your waters.”

I could go on, listing other holes in the “clean and green” PR line. New Zealand has much to be proud of as regards its farming prowess, such as getting food to markets thousands of miles away and surviving without government subsidies. But the colonial legacy in which finite resources, whether fish, timber or water, were commodities to be exploited no longer works. Diminishing resources worldwide have created a new paradigm, in which the world is divided between those who exploit resources for short-term economic gain, and those who see the economy as a subset of the environment, where sustainable use is the only viable long-term option.

©2010 Peter Huck